Your New Go-To Drink: The Two-Ingredient Japanese Whisky Highball

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As cocktails continue to get more complicated and require ingredients you’ll only find in speciality grocery stores, it’s time to reconsider an easy classic: The whisky highball. Relatively low in alcohol (usually made with a 1:3 ratio of whisky to soda), refreshing, and simple, this two-ingredient drink should be a part of your home mixing repertoire. But if you’re going to make something simple, you should at least make it the best version you can. Enter the Japanese whisky highball.

Highballs were extremely popular in Japan in the 1950s as a low-proof drink to pair with food. The highball fell out of favor for a few decades, but as Japanese whisky has surged in popularity, the drink is coming back in vogue. In Tokyo, you can find highballs by the can (perfect for drinking on the train), on draft at bustling izakayas, and beautifully made by expert mixologists at some of the city’s best cocktail bars. A highball can be made with any whisky (or whiskey, for that matter). But Japanese blends like what're coming from Suntory, as well as Iwai Tradition or one of Nikka’s blends, work great.

According to Gardner Dunn, senior ambassador for Beam Suntory Japanese Whisky, mixing a highball requires a bit more than your average whisky and soda. “Skillful technique and quality of ingredients set the Japanese highball apart,” he says. “[It] uses soda water with a higher carbonation level than the average soda, higher-quality ice with no bubbles or minerals, and is more refreshing in flavor profile.” It’s also served in a tall mug instead of a whisky tumbler.

Nikka, the other major player in Japanese whisky, isn’t pushing the highball as hard as Suntory, although the company believes its whisky works just as well in the drink. “Each of our whisky expressions has a distinctive flavor profile of its own,” says Naoki Tomoyoshi of Nikka Whisky International Business Development. “There should be many cocktail/serving options to make the whisky shine.”

According to Chaim Dauermann, bar manager at NYC's The Up & Up, proof is important when deciding what whisky to use in a highball. "You are about to dilute your spirit substantially," he says. "Forgoing something that's the usual 80 proof in favor of something a bit stronger — say, 86, 90, or 92 — will let more of the spirit's character shine through.”

While whisky highballs are coming back in cities like New York, San Francisco, and Chicago, the availability of the ingredients makes this a drink you should try at home. Here’s what Dunn recommends to make sure your highball isn’t a flop:

  1. Fill a highball glass to the brim with ice.
  2. Add one measure of Japanese whisky (which should be chilled ahead of time).
  3. Stir to cool the whisky and glass.
  4. Dump the first round of ice and add fresh ice up to the brim of the glass.
  5. Pour three measures of chilled soda water along the side of the glass to avoid melting the ice or bursting the bubbles.
  6. Add a lemon or grapefruit twist for garnish.